“Poetry is when you are at the edge.” Egyptian Poet Iman Mersal reflects on her writing

Iman Mersal is an Egyptian poet. She is the author of five Arabic poetry collection, her most recent Until We Give Up the Idea of Houses (2013). She has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and has one English collection translated by poet Khaled Mattawa, These Are Not Oranges, My Love: Selected Poems, with another forthcoming from translator Robyn Creswell. Regarded as one of the major Arabic-language poets of her generation, Mersal also translates, teaches, and is a theorist on the topic of motherhood.

You wrote in Akhbar al-Adab about the moments in Mahmoud Darwish’s life that seemed to generate his poetic obsessions (absence, for instance). What are the moments that shaped Iman Mersal’s poetry?

Darwish is the poet in exile; I am not. But I can relate to the “absence” in his world. You don’t have to be in exile or an immigrant to be shaped by it.

How does this show up in your poetry?

Absence has always been central to my writing. In writing we use language to capture hidden or elusive feelings. Writing is an attempt to restore moments in our lives that were there and are now gone, that should be there but aren’t. Restoring is more complicated than remembering or lamenting. It’s really a way to make sense of this world. In his video essay on video games as art, Evan Puschak states that they are, “A meditation both on the unspoiled image of what we want, and its profound unsatisfactory reflection, what we are.” As odd as it might seem to compare the two media, I think this captures the essence of writing.

What does poetry do that you can’t do in any of your other writing?

This might seem a little bit romantic—I hope not. In my experience, the anxiety of poetry is completely different from other kinds of writing I engage in. You usually start a poem not knowing what it’s about. You are haunted by an image, a sentence, or even just a word. At the same time, you know cryptically that you are walking toward poetry, nothing else. I have a funny way of entering that moment: I open a particular notebook that I usually carry for poetry, while for other work, I would write on my computer directly.

When you have this feeling, you know you’re going to write a poem and not anything else?

Or you are going towards poetry, not anything else. It often fails. The process of writing a poem is a journey in the dark towards an unknown destination.

You said in a Poetry Parnassus interview that you don’t really relate to protest poetry. Some of your poetry could be read as protest, in a sense. Why particularly did you want to distance yourself from protest poetry?

As a writer, it isn’t my intention to distance myself from any kind of poetry. As a reader, I can speak about the poetry I can’t connect to. I grew up with grand narratives about the nation, about the future, full of ideology. I was studying Adonis in my MA for example, and I would stay up late reading poetry that I could not relate to, despite its beauty, its language, its images. He’s a great poet, a prophet who is trying to change the world by changing Arabic language and culture, but he does not speak to me.

I was struggling with something else; the desire to understand myself, to deal with dark moments in everyday life, with memory. I was interested in the complexity of my relationship with my father, friendship, with authority in a very broad sense, not just religious or political. I was discovering individuality and was searching for my own voice.


Who else did you grow up reading, other than Adonis?

In general, poetry is the genre I read least. However, the Golden Age of Arabic poetry was my main source of poetry since high-school. Modern Arab poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Amal Donqol, and Salah Abdel Sabour among others.

I wrote an article last year about the Syrian poet Sania Saleh, and I was just lamenting the fact that I grew up thinking that there were no modern Arab female poets for me—until I read Sania Saleh, just three years ago or so. And this makes me wonder: Why such poetry was not available for me as a young reader? I think if I’d read her early in my life, it would have been fantastic.

And which might have had an influence on you?

As I’ve written before, I am sure so many, but the poet who had the greatest impact on me was the Iraqi Sargon Boulus. It was through him that I discovered that you can escape sentimentality, and you can write about your individual self in the Arabic language.

How widely do you read now? Is it important to read “widely, “including translations from all over the world?

It’s not just important; it’s one of the greatest pleasures. We used to read translated poetry as young readers. Even though some of the translations were quite bad, they had an impact on us. We discovered the diversity of what we call poetry. Reading, for example, Constantine Cavafy, W. B. Yeats, [Wisława] Szymborska, Emily Dickinson, Nicanor Parra, [Anna] Akhmatova.

How do you get to know new voices now?

I follow the Arabic poetry scene closely and enthusiastically. There are so many excellent female poets at the moment who are worth reading. Lately, I’ve enjoyed reading Aya Nabaih, Asmaa Yassen, and Malaka Badr, among so many others. As for non-Arabic poetry, I connect with it through the English and Arabic translations and by participating in international readings. You meet so many poets in life, but there are only a few that you admire and feel in dialogue with.

For example, I met the Macedonian poet Lidija Dimkovska at the Rotterdam poetry festival in 2003, then saw her in Lublijana twice, and we’ve since become friends. Other poets that I met at such events and highly recommend are the Albanian Luljeta Lleshanaku whom I met at Parnassus, London 2012, the Dominican Frank Báez and the Chilean Taller Nadia Prado whom I met in Nicaragua the same year. In Edmonton, where I live, there are some really good poets such as Bert Almon and Shawna Lemay. It is always a gift to discover a fine poet or even a fine poem.

Is there a literary scene you feel particularly close to?

I was invited to Slovenia in 2007 for an independent poetry reading called The Days of Poetry and Wine. I was the only Arab poet there. They translated the participants’ work before the event, and published it in English, Slovenian, and the original language, so I was actually able to read the poets I was spending days with.

I felt that a window was opened. There are so many similarities in questions and images between them and the Arabic poetry written since the 90s. You can imagine a poet in the 1990s living in post-Communist Romania and imagine me living in Cairo during the decline of so many ideologies including Arab nationalism, the events of Iraqi war, and Palestinian crises. We almost crossed the same threshold. I felt as if we are individuals who experienced the same formative moments through their own, distinct cultures.

I’ve never seen you translate poetry. I’ve only seen you translate prose. Why is that?

I am afraid to translate poetry. Maybe because it is a heavy responsibility. But I have been questioning this fear lately and thinking that it might be silly.

Would you rather be translated by someone who is not a poet or non-poet?

There is always anxiety in the act of translation, carrying a text from one culture to another. Khaled Mattawa’s translation of my work, which is the dearest one to my heart, was not free from this anxiety. There were moments when I thought: he is a fantastic poet, and a translator, will this mean having two voices struggling inside my poems in English, mine and his? With a translator who is not a poet I would have different worries.

After a while you have to give up guardianship over your poems, allowing them to migrate to new languages and homes. You imagine that your voice is carried through the air to ears far away from you; it is impossible to determine how your voice will reach the other side. It may sound more elongated or softer than it really is; it might be grandly eloquent, as if you are an elite native speaker. The translator who selects my poem, and sits there struggling to put it in his or her own language, has the right to rewrite it as long as my accented voice is surviving its journey to the destination.

In Walter Benjamin’s view, the translator ultimately serves to express the innermost relationship of languages to one another. I accept the fact that there is always something lost–perhaps music, syntax, visual memory–that has no reference in the translated culture. But when I am reading great poets’ work translated into English or Arabic, I don’t ask about what might have been lost in translation, but rather celebrate what might have been gained.

In an essay about motherhood you wrote a line that grabbed hold of my imagination as a writer and a mother: Poetry is where you exist as no one’s mother, where you exist as yourself.

I quoted Adrienne Rich from her book On Motherhood. She confronts her identities as a writer and mother: “Once in a while someone used to ask me, ‘Don’t you ever write poems about your children?’ The male poets of my generation did write poems about their children — especially their daughters. For me, poetry was where I lived as no-one’s mother, where I existed as myself.”

This confrontation grabbed my imagination as well. It carries within it the sense of guilt and anger that lies at the core of motherhood, in my opinion. I’ve written about my children, but they were not a topic in my poems. I hate to make anything a topic of poetry.

You hate to make anything a topic of poetry?

Poetry is when you are at the edge. There is no clear idea about what you want to say, it’s this complexity, and being at the edge, and having layers in one moment—layers that can consume you. All of these layers together in one moment is poetry to me.

I don’t believe there is a poem about the nation or about love. It is always about a moment that carries within it a question, discovery, or confusion that might illuminate something about love or nation …

Do you feel the same way when reading other people’s poetry, that you can’t relate to poems “about” a topic?

I sense this sometimes. When you read a feminist poet writing a poem about the imposition of male authority, I would ask, why not an article? I don’t see poetry functioning in this area at all.

On the other hand, you might read a poem that absolutely deconstructs the male authority without intention, as if this happening by accident — it’s not just ideology.

What are you reading lately?

Since November, many of my readings are on photography. I’m writing a chapter on motherhood and photography.

What Arabic writing is interesting you lately?

I read recently a few books published by Ashkal Alwan, which I think is great publishing project. The latest I read is Fadi Toufaili’s book Iqtifaa Athar. It is an amazing narrative that, at the same time, creates and deconstructs the geography of Beirut during the civil war.

What about these new books got your attention?

I feel that when Arabic publishing industry is interested in literature, it is interested in genres, with the novel above all others. However, there are some publishing projects that encourage “open writing,” writing between novel, memoir, academic search and other genres. Ashkal Alwan is one of them. There is also Kayfa ta (“How To”). Kayfa ta defines itself as “a non-profit Arabic publishing initiative that uses the popular form of how-to manuals to engage some of today’s needs, thoughts, and sensibilities.” It published a stunning book by the Egyptian writer Haytham El Wardany, Kayfa Takhtafy (How To Disappear).

You can see more about Kayfa Ta on Mada Masr.

Do you think this reading will emerge in your poetry?

I think everything emerges in poetry in mysterious ways, but maybe after it’s dissolved. Or in Bakhtin’s words: “Everything that enters the poetry must immerse itself in Lethe, and forget its previous life in any other contexts.”


About the Interviewer

M Lynx Qualey is a cultural activist, journalist, and independent scholar who launched and edits the e-magazine Arabic Literature (in English). She writes for a variety of publications, including The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, The Women’s Review of Books, and Al Jazeera, and also works as a ghostwriter and editor, helping people bring stories that aren’t often told to life. 


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